Cover Story: A brief history of Black journalism in America

By Cali Carss

Last month, our editors at the Beacon Beat opened Black History Month by sharing an opinion piece by Yale professor Crystal N. Feimster, which highlighted the activism of Ida B. Wells — specifically her outspoken reaction to the lynching of a Black woman named Eliza Woods. Wells acknowledged the cross sections of race and gender oppression frequently in her writing  and constantly attempted to make people face the reality she saw. She systematically investigated lynching and took her fight against it across the country and even to Europe, despite constant threats of violence from white people in the South. She took her argument further than any other, pushing for protection for Black women against sexual violence by white men. Yet, Wells’ full mission and intellect is rarely explored in history classes. I, as a white student and journalist, only vaguely knew of her before this year.

The main question this left me with was – what other influential Black journalists have been glossed over in America’s retelling of its history? From Wells in the late 19th century to the 1619 Project today, there’s a much richer history of Black journalism connecting the years than I’ve ever been taught.

The first ever Black owned and operated newspaper was founded on March 16, 1827, right here in New York City. The founders, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, both greatly valued reading and writing as key ways to empower the Black community. Called Freedom’s Journal, the newspaper was a weekly publication released on Fridays. It contained a great variety of topics, from foreign news to editorials denouncing slavery to news from within the community. The latter was particularly important as most newspapers at the time wouldn’t even publish African American obituaries. At its peak, Freedom’s Journal was circulating in eleven states plus the District of Columbia, Haiti, Canada, and Europe. Unfortunately, the publication had to close in 1829 as a result of a loss of circulation, which in turn was because of Russwurm’s support of American colonization in Africa. Cornish, who left before the shutdown because of a difference of opinion with Russwurm, attempted to revive the paper under the name The Rights of All, but didn’t make it to a year before being shut down again. However, the Freedom’s Journal’s impact was undeniable: by the time the Civil War began thirty years later, there were over forty Black-owned and operated newspapers spread over the country.

Twenty years after the opening of Freedom’s Journal, one of the most recognizable and influential Black  activists of the 19th century opened his own paper. Frederick Douglass’ antislavery newspaper, The North Star, published its first edition on December 3, 1847. The publication quickly became one of the most influential antislavery newspapers of the era. Published weekly out of Rochester, NY, the four-page paper was sold to over 4,000 readers across America, the West Indies, and Europe. Its motto read: “Right is of no sex – Truth is of no color – God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.” The paper lasted quite a bit longer, ceasing publication in June of 1851. This was due to the paper merging with the Liberty Party Paper. Publication continued under the name Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which included a monthly supplement from Douglass, aptly named Douglass’ Monthly. He strayed away from focus on the paper as the Civil War approached, ending the weekly edition in 1863 to direct his efforts to the war and recruitment of Black troops.

“Frederick Douglass’ antislavery newspaper, The North Star, published its first edition on December 3, 1847.”

Circling back to Ida B. Wells, her extensive research and activism concerning lynching were revolutionary in their own right. She pointed out that these acts of violence were often not punishing any crime, but rather a horrific intimidation method used against Black people across the country. Wells published her findings on March 9th of 1892 in The Memphis Free Speech, a paper she had become part-owner of earlier that year. She pressed on with her writing on the subject despite intense backlash from white people, eventually leading to her being forced out of Memphis. Wells continued her crusade against lynching with her book: The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. In it, she compiled statistics showing the true horrers of lynching, and connected the rise in white brutality to their fear of Black people’s increased political power. She fought for civil rights all her life, going on to co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, in 1909. Wells showed immense courage, determination, and strength throughout her career, even in the face of serious danger.

Around the same time, multiple Black newspapers that are still operating today opened across the country. The Cleveland Call & Post was a weekly publication founded by local inventor Garrett Morgan through the merging of two previously Black-owned newspapers, the Call Newspaper and the Cleveland Post, in the mid 1910s. The Call and Post almost went bankrupt in the 1990s before it was bought in 1998 by boxing promoter Don King, who gave the paper a new life. A similar story took  place in Chicago with The Chicago Defender. This paper, founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in 1905, has a remarkable history. It is responsible for jumpstarting the Great Migration, editorials from 1916 urging the Black community in the South to “spread out to the four corners of the earth” in order to have a chance at advancement. On September 2, 1916, the Defender front page showed a photograph of a group of people waiting for the train in Savannah, Georgia with the title “The Exodus”. The paper was heavily praised for saying what the local Southern papers “dare not say.” The paper eventually became the highest circulated Black newspaper in the nation, becoming a daily publication in 1956. However, following the death of publisher John H. Stengstacke in 1997, the fate of the paper was uncertain. After years in limbo, the paper was purchased by his nephew, Thomas Picou in 2002. After so much uncertainty, the paper remained Black owned, continuing its history of excellence into the modern day with an online-only publication.

One journalist who got their start at the Defender was Alice Allison Dunnigan. A former teacher, she got a job at the paper in 1946 and quickly moved up through the world of journalism, securing a press pass to the US Capitol in 1948, and later became the first Black reporter to cover the White House. She even accompanied  Harry Truman on his 1948 presidential campaign, as well as Lyndon B Johnson’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1960. She often focused her coverage and questions to politicians around the civil rights movement and concerns of Black America. Dunnigan retired from her work in the Capitol in 1970 and published an autobiography four years later, entitled A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House.

“More recently, we saw the 1619 Project from one Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine domestic correspondent with a focus on racial injustices.

More recently, we saw the 1619 Project from one Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine domestic correspondent with a focus on racial injustices. The project began in August of 2019 and is described as an “ongoing initiative” by the New York Times Magazine to reframe US history by centering on Black Americans. Hannah-Jones describes the project as “more truthful, but not comforting.” This sentiment has certainly been felt by a large portion of the country, considering the backlash the project faced and continues to face. However, along with the criticism came great accolades and new opportunities. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her work in 2020, and in November of last year the 1619 Project was adapted into a book. The book, subtitled A New Origin Story, is comprised of 18 essays and 36 poems, as well as various works of fiction. Its release was accompanied by a children’s book, subtitled Born On The Water. Although the project was an enormous undertaking, Hannah-Jones has called it the “most amazing, impactful work of my entire career.”

Black journalism, whether it comes from newspapers or televised media, has  been and continues to be crucial to America’s collective progress. These journalists pioneer ideas that the larger society is too scared to accept, and make space for their own communities in a country that is so good at pushing them out. Black journalists have been working tirelessly to bring news to their communities for nearly two centuries; and every one, past and present, deserves to be recognized for their contributions to the world of journalism. We should remember to continue to uplift Black voices and stories; and one way to do that is to bring Black journalists to the forefront of their field, and write a new cover story.

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